Report reveals emotional risks faced by children on social media

children on phones

Children are ill-equipped to deal with the risks of social media and pre-teens are suffering from low esteem and anxiety as a result. A new report calls on parents and schools to do more to protect them – and highlights that one of the top fears among children themselves is the practice of 'sharenting'.

The 'sharenting' divide has split adults in recent years – do you or don't you? And it seems the impact of the practice on children is now being seen. In research published today, The Children's Commissioner for England Anne Longfield delves into how children under 13 use social media platforms. The report, 'Life in Likes', reveals that 'sharenting', or parents posting pictures of their children on social media without their permission, is among the greatest causes of social media concern for children aged eight to 12.

The report also explores how children use popular platforms such as Facebook and Instagram and in particular how their usage affects their wellbeing and self-esteem. Although social media is shown to have some positive effects on children's wellbeing, especially as it affords them some independence and can strengthen existing friendships, the negative aspects dominate when it comes to children's confidence and anxiety levels.

The report shows that preteens' use of social media platforms like Instagram and Snapchat has a largely damaging effect on how they see themselves. This is made worse when children 'follow' celebrities and people they don't know; when children connect with wider networks of friends and start to follow people they don't know offline, they become more aware of their own identity. As a result, they start comparing themselves to a broader group of people and begin to worry about whether they fit in, what people think of them and what they look like.

While eight to 10 year olds are shown to use social media in a largely positive way – usually to play games – by year seven many children begin to experience pressure to perfect and maintain their online image, often becoming increasingly anxious when their number of 'likes' and 'comments' wavers.

Unlike their younger peers, most of whom do not have their own phones and have not yet developed the habit of checking their social media on a regular basis, most year seven children have their own phones. As a result, there is an expectation to be permanently connected, often at the expense of other activities.

What can parents and schools do to help children cope with social media?

Given the outcome of the report, the Commissioner is encouraging parents and schools to prepare children for the potential risks of social media, including implementing compulsory digital literacy and online resilience lessons for year six and sevens. She is also calling on social media companies to acknowledge their responsibility to protect under 13s using their platforms and insists that social media companies who maintain that their platforms are not suitable for under 13s must address underage use through more rigorous moderation.

How to keep your child safe on social media

  • Where possible, make sure you set up parental controls on the devices your child uses.
  • Explain how you can use privacy settings to make sure only approved 'friends' can see posts and images.
  • Show your child how to report offensive comments or block people who upset them.
  • Share devices among the family. This way you can cut down the time your child spends online and discretely keep an eye on what they have been looking at when it's your turn to use the device.
  • Talk openly and honestly about social media sites, how they add friends and issues around chatting online.
  • Encourage your child to take part in hobbies, sports or other activities. The report shows that children who do so are less reliant on social media.

Why 'chasing likes' impacts self-esteem

Internet Matters ambassador and psychologist Dr Linda Papadopoulos responded to the report, saying that while it was not a new phenomenon to be concerned about how others see us, the ability to ask for opinions and call on our peers for constant, instant feedback was new.

“As a result children are deleting posts if they don’t hit their basic ‘likes’ threshold driven by achieving an unrealistic online image.

“The amount of likes is dependent on their online popularity, how many friends or followers they have and in turn it means they are performing to an audience who they don’t necessarily know them, which leaves them vulnerable."

She said constant posting may also open children up to receiving more negative or mean comments online, rather than compliments or praise.

“We need to have conversations with our children about the impact of seeking approval from the online world and comparing their lives to the edited versions of other people’s lives.

“We must help them mentally disconnect from the constructed identities they have created online and allow them to gain the freedom to know who they really are.

“As parents we can help remind them not to put all their self-esteem eggs in one basket and can focus on other attributes other than their appearance.